Brown's beer: Beer is the great equaliser, just ask Barack Obama

Beer blogger Pete Brown explains how the brown stuff defines Londoners

Sometimes, certain ideas or memes just seem to be in your face.

It’s not that they’re new or necessarily topical, you just find yourself returning to them again and again. They seem right and appropriate to everything for a bit, until a new meme comes along and you follow that one instead, like a cat chasing a piece of string.

My current dominant meme – it’s been a good few weeks now – is the notion of ‘the beer moment’. I started talking about this in some corporate consultancy I was doing, to try to explain why beer is different from other consumer products. And then it came up in a second, entirely different bit of consultancy, in a different context. 

Then, when I was asked to host the latest in a series of monthly discussions among the global beer blogging community, it seemed like the perfect subject, and having suggested the idea, I’m now thinking and talking about it on a daily basis.

My second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, was a global odyssey in search of the perfect beer moment, seeking to discover whether it was universal, or something that was culturally determined in different countries. I spent most of 2004 and 2005 pondering it, and now, like an album that you tire of playing, leave for a long time and then rediscover (it seems obvious to me now that Big Country were always vastly underrated), I’ve rediscovered it.

So what is the beer moment?

To me, it’s something magical and special, the thing I like to write about far more than hops or barley or yeast or casks or kegs. 

Of course part of it is about intoxication, and let’s be daringly, shockingly honest here: we drink because we like the feeling alcohol gives us. It’s good for us. We’ve drunk heavily since the dawn of civilisation, and we’re here aren’t we? (Sure, some people do daft things when they’re drunk, but remember, George W Bush was mostly harmless until he swore off the booze. Christ’s first miracle was turning water into wine, while Hitler was a devout teetotaller. And George Osborne has never been seen in a pub. But I digress.)

Loads of drinks get you drunk, but part of the beer moment is its the slow curve of inebriation. 

You get to that warm, mellow buzz, where you’re definitely not sober but certainly not drunk, and you can maintain it and manage it much more carefully, extending it into an evening if you like, or cutting it short when you’ve gained a bit of creative inspiration but still have a clear enough head to go back to work and use it.

And maybe that’s what’s at the heart of it, but beer is the friendliest of all alcoholic drinks. It’s democratic and unpretentious. It doesn’t demand that you are knowledgeable or sophisticated, or rich. 

The best wines in the world can cost five figures. The best beers in the world rarely break three (though some do), and yet they’re every bit as special. 

The best beer advert I’ve ever seen wasn’t for a specific beer at all. It was a poster for the Samaritans and showed two empty half-pint glasses on a pub table, the headline read simply, ‘A problem shared.’

When Barack Obama had to defuse a potentially explosive race row in 2009, he invited the black professor and the white cop who arrested him for breaking into his own home, to the White House for a beer. If they’d been drinking anything else it would have been, at best, an irrelevance (who cares if they had coffee or tea?); at worst, wildly inappropriate (hey, come to the White house and let’s get pissed up on Bourbon!) 

The drink was a prop: a signifier that these were just three regular guys as soon as they were facing each other over a beer.

The typical London beer moment is very special indeed. I’ve lived in London for 20 years now, and despite its appalling inequality, obscene wealth and general nastiness in some respects, London does the beer moment way better than the north, where I grew up. 

The truth that unites us, whether we’re steelworkers or derivatives traders, is that we long for that first pint when we knock off on a Friday night.

When I worked in factories as a teenager (when Barnsley still had factories) we’d rush home from work, get ‘washed and changed’, head to the local boozer for a couple of sharpeners and then go back into town around 8pm to meet up with our co-workers. 

Beer united us: out on the town we could bitch about the management and revel in these precious hours when we were free from them.

London is different.

Thanks partly to the fact that we don’t have to look like shit because of our jobs, and partly because by the time we get home we’re too knackered to do anything more than order a takeaway curry, we go out directly from work. 

We hit the pub at six, and some of us stay there for the evening, others meet up with partners for a meal or a movie, while others leave in time for Corrie. 

And because we do it this way, our managers and CEOs often feel obliged to pop out for a round or two, because if they didn’t, they would (a) confirm their squareness and (b) miss a chance to chat up that secretary they nearly got off with at the Christmas party. 

And so we get a chance to chat to them – and them to us – on the level. 

The hierarchy of the office disappears and there’s a moment of openness where things can be aired and tensions eased in an informal, chatty atmosphere. It’s not quite Obama defusing a race row at the White House, but it’s on the same continuum. 

Up north, when we head home from work, we go back out in our established groups and we miss this opportunity to mix it up, and that contributes to the ‘them and us’ attitude that prevails in the work place.

So: among its many other benefits, the beer moment creates workplace harmony. That’s my theory anyway, and I’m sticking to it.   

Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com. He was recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.

 

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